Is Lockstep Compensation the Key to Happy Associates?

by Rachel Marx Boufford | September 25, 2012

As part of its special section on the future of BigLaw, the New York Times examined the culture at firms that have held on to a pure lockstep compensation structure—for both partners and associates. According to the managing partners at CravathCleary and Debevoise, the lockstep system—in which attorneys are paid solely according to their seniority instead of according to merit-based criteria—fosters a culture of transparency, collegiality and teamwork.

This summer, Vault released its annual Quality of Life rankings, including a ranking of the firms with the best culture—as voted by firms’ own associates. We wondered—how many of these top 25 firms have lockstep compensation?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is that only five of the 25 firms ranked as having the best culture have pure lockstep compensation (some other firms have a lockstep/merit hybrid model): Williams & ConnollyDebevoisePatterson BelknapCleary Gottlieb and Davis Polk.

So what do associates at these firms have to say about how the compensation system affects their firm’s culture?

  • “The fixed ‘above-market’ salary system creates a great culture among associates. There is no incentive to ‘outbill’ anyone, no competition, no concerns or held breath. “ (Williams & Connolly)
  • “Debevoise is lockstep, which cuts a lot of the competitive behavior between associates that goes on at other firms.”
  • “It's really a nice place to work—good people, good work, good hours. No one is competing to be the last person in the office at night, and both associates and partners respect that you have other work and things outside of the office to do.” (Patterson Belknap)
  • “As a lockstep firm at all levels of compensation (associates and partners), Cleary associates are not rewarded or financially compensated for billing excessive hours. As intended, this translates into (i) a more collegial approach to taking on assignments, (ii) less individual pressure on yourself and (iii) greater efficiency.”
  • “Atmosphere is very collegial, even among partners; the feel is completely collaborative, not competitive.” (Davis Polk)

So if taking competition out of the equation fosters a collegial culture, how do the remaining top twenty firms for culture keep things positive? It looks like a commitment to transparency, compensation metrics that aren’t solely hours-based, an absence of strict hierarchy and a focus on team-building events all go a long way.

  • “Politically, there is a lot of transparency about how the firm is run and it's a super-egalitarian place to work. Professionally, everyone is very respectful of each other. Partners reach out and try to be mentors.” (Munger Tolles)
  • “Though bonuses are tied to hours, you can still get a ‘full’ bonus without meeting your hours requirement by exceeding expectations in some other regard.” (Ropes & Gray)
  • “Lawyers do tend to socialize, both individually and with their families. The firm focuses on fostering collegiality with both business and after-hours/weekend events, and with both internal and community based events.” (Baker Donelson)
  • “The firm's culture is relaxed and informal. The strict sense of hierarchy that permeates other firms is completely absent. One example: when a partner wishes to speak to an associate, they are just as likely to visit the associate's office as they are to call the associate to their office.” (Foley Hoag)
  • “The culture is incredibly tight-knit—from socializing outside of the office, to monthly in-office cocktail hours and free yoga classes. Working together is easy, as most associates are very friendly with one another.” (Patton Boggs)

So what does this mean for you? As you research and interview with law firms, you should certainly inform yourself about potential employers’ compensation systems. But don’t assume that a lockstep structure is a prerequisite to a collegial culture: dig deeper into the initiatives firms offer to foster a positive work environment.

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Filed Under: Job Search | Salary & Benefits | Workplace Issues


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